Challenging Volunteers

challenging volunteers

Have you ever had to deal with challenging volunteers?

Ann really wanted the volunteer role. She did whatever it took to get it, but once she had it, things started to fall apart. Other things started taking priority for her; she started missing shifts, work wasn’t done to standard – or wasn’t done at all!

I spoke with Ann about it a few times but didn’t see any improvement, so finally I “fired” her (yes, you can fire a volunteer and I’ll talk about that later).

But was there something better I could have done?

Probably. In the time since then, I’ve thought over the situation a lot. I have come up with some ways that I could have kept Ann as a volunteer, but still ensured that the work was completed well and on time. In case you’re dealing with a challenging volunteer, here are a few tips.

1. Talk with them.

Yes, I did do this with Ann and it didn’t work, but a majority of times it will. Find out if something has changed in their life situation. Are they feeling overwhelmed or unsure of themselves in the position? Do they think that more training, or having a mentor will help?

Or maybe it’s the other way around; maybe they’re not finding the position much of a challenge and they’re bored. Can you “promote” them, or have them mentor someone else?

2. Re-match them.

It might be that the position just isn’t what they thought it would be. Is there another position that would suit them better?

To know this, of course, you need to have a good understanding of what they’re looking for in a volunteer position. So, ask them! And if they say “I just want to help”, dig deeper.

Keep a file of the likes, dislikes, skills and interests of all the agency’s volunteers. That way you can match them with roles that keep them engaged and active. It takes a bit of effort to gather all this information, but it is worth it in terms of the quality of work, and your retention rates.

3. Be flexible.

This is especially important if you have younger volunteers, like Ann, whose lives are constantly in flux.

Build certain of your roles with flexibility in mind. Tasks that can be done at various times of the day or week. Tasks that allow the volunteer autonomy in how they are accomplished. Allow longer or shorter shifts, or in person or online attendance.

The more options you embrace, the more people will be able to fit helping you into their schedules.

4. Look in the mirror.

Let’s face it, sometimes it’s not the volunteer. It’s us.

We all have unconscious biases. Is it possible that you are letting one of them influence you?

Are the volunteers being shown appreciation often enough? (My rule is to thank every volunteer, every shift.)

Are you uncomfortable delegating responsibility, leading volunteers to feel you lack trust in them?

There are many things that we might be doing that could be causing or worsening the situation, without us even being aware of it. It’s always worth stepping back and taking an objective look at yourself and your procedures.

5. If nothing else works, you actually may need to fire them.

There are some challenging volunteers that you just don’t want in your organization. People who will damage your organization’s reputation, drive away other volunteers, or worse. In that case, you do need to get rid of them. It’s not easy, but sometimes it needs to be done.

Mostly, though, there are things that we can do to keep the volunteer.

If, when I talked with Ann, I had used some of these tips, she might still be volunteering. If I had focused more on her needs and less on the problem, or if I had been more flexible around how the tasks were done. Or if I had just found a more suitable position for her in the organization, I might not have had to fire her.

I could have taken a lose-lose-lose situation (her, the organization and myself), and turned it into a win-win-win.

So next time you are faced with challenging volunteers, take my advice and try a few other things before you decide to fire them.

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